Modernism 2.0 in a Post-Holocaust Novel

Magical Realist Epic by Best-Selling Dutch Novelist Arrives in America

By Michael Kaminer

Published June 23, 2010, issue of July 02, 2010.
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In a Dark Wood: A Novel
By Marcel Möring***
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
HarperCollins, 464 pages, $24.99

With sly perversity, Marcel Möring declares on the overleaf of “In a Dark Wood,” his surreal, sprawling post-Holocaust epic: “This is a novel. Nothing in this book is true.”

While that statement might be factually accurate — Möring’s protagonists, Holocaust survivor Jacob Noah and journalist Marcus Kolpa, probably never existed — the city where “Wood” unfolds is the author’s actual hometown in the Netherlands. Its annual motorcycle race, which forms a hellish backdrop for the novel, is a real event. And the novel itself actually reeks of truth in its X-ray of the Jewish soul in the purgatory of modern Europe.

A literary celebrity in his native land, Möring is — according to his publisher’s website — the Netherlands’ best-selling author. His first book, “Mendel’s Inheritance,” won the country’s Geertjan Lubberhuizen Prize for debut novels, while his second, “The Great Longing,” snagged an AKO Literature Prize, the Dutch equivalent of a Man Booker. “In a Dark Wood,” published to rapturous reviews as “Dis” in 2006, won the Bordewijk Prize for the best Dutch novel that year; once Shaun Whiteside’s English-language translation earned praise in Britain, HarperCollins apparently deemed it suitable for American readers.

In 1945, after three years hiding from the Nazis in a peat bog, a Dutch Jew named Jacob Noah — his family’s sole survivor — emerges into the world “brown like a fresh horse turd.” Making his way back to Assen, the provincial, middle-class town of his birth, Noah finds his family shoe-repair shop converted to an “Aryan” bookstore. After taking back the store by force, Noah ultimately makes it the cornerstone of a mercantile empire.

But the more Noah possesses, the emptier he feels. Even the beautiful non-Jewish woman he marries after the war, and the three bright daughters they have together, only throw into relief everything the Holocaust took from his life. “He has loss and he has something that must yet be loss,” Möring writes.

Thirty-five years after his emergence from the swamp, pondering his life on a drive through town, Noah dies in a calamitous car accident that sets the story in motion. Or does he? After a protracted dream sequence, he is greeted by a “shiny black Jewish beetle,” an erudite peddler who calls himself the Jew of Assen. The peddler becomes Jacob Noah’s guide through a violent night in Assen, where drunken hordes have descended for the motorcycle race. A sense of anarchic menace pervades every page. The peddler’s role is just one of many references to Dante scattered through “In a Dark Wood,” including its title, which cribs one of “Inferno’s” first phrases.

Woven into Noah’s story is young Marcus Kolpa’s. A restless — perhaps rootless — Jewish journalist who has long since left Assen for Amsterdam, Kolpa has returned to seek out Noah’s daughter Chaja, one of his early loves. As it becomes clear he’s also searching for his place in the world as a Jew, Kolpa’s quest becomes its own dark night of the soul, punctuated by dreamlike encounters with dreamlike characters, from an enigmatic Italian burlesque-club owner to voluptuous ex-lovers to violence-prone motorcycle racing fans.

Except in the beginning, Noah and Kolpa don’t cross paths. But they’re inextricably linked, just as modern European Jews carry the previous generation’s loss at a nearly cellular level. Near the novel’s end, when Noah sees Kolpa leave with Chaja after a furious, gory riot in a beer tent, both characters come full circle. “I’ve got to let her go,” Noah says of his youngest, favorite daughter — and perhaps of his people. “All of them. I have to let them all go… I can’t protect them to prevent something that happened forty years ago.”

As a thorny meditation on loss, peoplehood and freedom, “In a Dark Wood” presents a daunting but rewarding journey of its own. As a literary experiment, the novel feels less convincing. Möring himself has called the book “modernism 2.0,” but the tricks he employs — gaudy graphical text treatments, giant parentheses that bookend chapters, an entire chapter played out as a comic strip — never feel organic. Möring is clearly a confident novelist and an omnivorous intellect; but his textual diversions feel more like gestures than effective narrative devices. A Dutch author might deploy nuances that a North American reader could miss, but reining himself in might have served his storytelling better.

Pop-culture references peppered throughout the book also feel a little gratuitous. After Möring quotes Monty Python — rather appropriately — in his introduction, “In a Dark Wood” proceeds to give shout-outs to Electric Light Orchestra, Cheap Trick, Madness, Lipps Inc. (of “Funkytown” fame) and Baccara’s 1977 disco touchstone “Yes Sir I Can Boogie.” It’s a clumsy way of establishing period cred — most of the book takes place in 1980 — and doesn’t provide the comic payoff Möring seems to have hoped for.

By the end of “In a Dark Wood,” readers are likely to feel as exhausted as its endlessly wandering characters, but exhilarated too. I won’t reveal where Jacob Noah eventually finds peace, but Möring’s closing passage — as perverse as the one he opens with — speaks volumes about how we Jews might confront, but never surmount, our past.

Michael Kaminer is a frequent Forward contributor whose writing has also appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

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